Although theme and subject may be used interchangeably, the theme is truly what the poem says about the subject. Theme, says Kenny Tenamura of Purdue Online Writing Lab, is “the ‘meaning’ of a story.” The general subject of May Swenson’s poem “Women” is obvious from the title. The poem’s theme, that women are objects and playthings of men, is also clearly portrayed in its imagery, symbolism and diction and by its speaker.
The most striking aspect of “Women” is its image on the page. The poem is constructed in two identical, curved columns, read separately. They seem to conjure up the headless profiles of two women, representing womankind. The columns are connected at two points by longer lines, which read smoothly with each column; these connecting lines might be viewed as bustline and waist. The poem’s shape also suggests a “moving pedestal," the central image of the first column. The central image of the second column is a rocking horse. Both images objectify women and are to be understood as women’s purpose and reality.
The poem’s central images double as its major symbols. The old adage is that men should put women up on a pedestal, but Swenson describes women as “moving pedestals moving to the motions of men." This symbol disappears in line 10 as women become “things in the toyroom.” The poem’s midsection describes the rocking of horses, “The / pegs / of their ears," while riders are reduced to “trusting fists” and “legs” that “stride away," showing that there is no relationship between riders and their toys. Women are to be used and nothing more. The pedestal image returns in the last section, second column, but its purpose is reversed -- instead of men putting women on a pedestal, “women should be pedestals to men."
Swenson uses simple lines of one or two words and, rarely, three. There is no room for debate in these lines, no justifying or pondering possibilities. The connecting lines -- 10 and 20 -- represent the link of common experience between women. The first line notes that women are “the gladdest things in the playroom," indicating that they are objects and happy to be so. In the second, longer line, the riders, portrayed as “egos” that women serve, abandon their toys, as children do when interest wanes. The final six lines in each column suggest what “women should be" -- "immobile sweetlipped,” “smiling” and always ready to do men’s bidding.
Does Swenson truly mean that women should be the playthings of men? A common mistake in analyzing poetry is equating the poet with the speaker. Purdue OWL explains that just as in a novel, where the narrator does not necessarily represent the writer’s view, a poem’s speaker may not equal the poet. Rather, a poem’s speaker is often a persona, or adopted identity. Given that “Women” was published in a 1978 collection, it seems likely that the speaker presents views of womanhood common at that time.
- Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images